Who is Inter Milan’s Mauro Icardi?
Upon converting a 90th minute penalty to win the Derby Milano last Sunday, Mauro Icardi removed his shirt and showed his name and number to the crowd and watching world – a celebration that intentionally mimicked Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
While aligning himself with two of the game’s modern greats may attract derision from some, the Argentine’s claim to sit among Europe’s top frontmen grows sounder with each passing season. 9 matches into 2017/18, Tottenham’s Harry Kane has scored eight goals from 57 shots, Romelu Lukaku has seven from 34, Edin Dzeko seven from 41. Icardi? nine from 25. If he goes for goal, there’s a more than one in three chance it’s going in.
But who is the 24-year-old striker, and how has a player so talismanic at one of European football’s most dormant sleeping giants evaded the clutches of the moneyed elite of England, France and Spain?
Interestingly enough, he hasn’t. Having moved from Rosario to the Canary Islands aged 9 with his family, Icardi was snapped up six years later by Barcelona, where he spent three years at the club’s famed La Masia youth academy. But being a classical number nine whose primary contribution to his team has always been made in the opposition’s penalty area, Icardi’s poacher style was an odd fit for Guardiola-era Barca. Indeed, the step down in prestige his departure for Sampdoria in 2011 represented has since been deemed a distinctly mature sacrifice by both the player himself and observers of his career.
When Inter then paid around €13 million for the striker’s services after a debut Serie A season that yielded 11 goals, he was handed the same millstone of expectation that has weighed down a generation of talent since the club’s historic treble under Jose Mourinho in 2010. The effect on Icardi proved negligent, however, as the youngster set about earning comparisons to the prolific figurehead of that season, Diego Milito – who beamed down from the stands like a proud father as Icardi became the first player since himself to score three in a derby at the San Siro last Sunday. Indeed, pressure doesn’t seem to be something that affects the man Roberto Mancini promoted to club captain two years ago, whose goal-scoring record in crucial match situations and against heavyweight oppositions like Roma and Juventus is remarkable.
Such a propensity for big game performances makes Icardi appear ready-made for the bright lights of the Champions League, so speculative links away from low-flying Inter (who have flitted between the Europa league and no European football at all since his arrival) have circulated with regularity. While the sides he’s played in have looked bereft of stability and creativity in equal measure at times, Icardi has kept on hitting the net, leaving onlookers to fantasise of the devastation he could cause in a team that provided him with a more constant stream of chances. During some of Inter’s poorest displays, one has wondered whether their skipper has done the same.
Understanding why Icardi has thus far chosen to stay put involves a certain degree of counter-intuitive reasoning. To describe Icardi’s character as stubbornly loyal would draw scepticism from those vaguely familiar with his personal life. His wife Wanda is the former partner of one-time friend and mentor at Sampdoria, Maxi Lopez, whose children now conspicuously feature on their step-father’s social media posts. More seriously, the autobiography he published a year ago included a self-attributed quote in which he threatened to bring 100 Argentinian criminals to attack the Inter Ultras who prevented him from handing his match shirt to a child after a 3-1 defeat away to Sassuolo in 2015. It led to vicious denials and counter-threats from the supporters group, as well as demands for him to be stripped of the captaincy.
But whether it’s the adoration he received from the rank-and-file Inter fans, the club’s management, the city of Milan or something else, Icardi has developed an affinity to the Nerazurri that has kept his list of overseas admirers from ever mounting a substantiated transfer chase.
“I want to play in the Champions League”, Icardi has been quoted as stating, “But I want to do it for Inter.”
Presumptions that such consistency in front of goal will eventually lead Icardi away from the San Siro are complicated by the recent upwards trajectory of the team, and the club’s demonstrable determination to keep him as the face of their brand. With the competent Luciano Speletti in charge and Italy’s allocation of Champions League spots now upped to four, next season should see ‘MI9’ finally take his place in Europe’s top competition. If Icardi is able to once more raise his game according to the height of the stage then the tournament, as well as the young man’s career, will be richer for his presence.